Fire & Brimstone: Why the Campus Preacher Approach to Hazing Prevention Doesn’t Work


If you’ve ever spent some time on the campus of a public college or university, you’ve probably seen the campus preacher. On the campus where I work, the campus preacher sets up a chair mid-morning, and spends the rest of the day standing on top of it and preaching to passers-by. If you listen for any amount of time, you’ll hear about death, punishment, and the things you’re doing wrong.

The campus preacher’s goal is conversion. That is, he wants you to change your behavior and to find a new path.

Does it work? I can’t say for sure, but I have yet to see somebody with a positive response to the message of death, punishment, and wrong-doing.

In the battle to end hazing, are we employing a similar approach?

Preaching to the Choir

I’ve been thinking about that question as I’ve been reading responses to Sigma Nu’s and HazingPrevention.Org’s #40Answers Twitter campaign. The campaign’s goal is to crowdsource responses to common excuses in support of hazing. Many of the responses are insightful and inspiring, but others (including some of my own responses) are condescending and dismissive.

So, are we being change agents, or just imitating the campus preacher?

As a student who challenged a culture of hazing in my organization, I made the mistake more than I can count. I felt strongly that hazing was the wrong path, so I got up on my chair and preached. I spoke about the dangers of hazing (death, injury, sanctions, closing the chapter, etc.), and I pointed out members’ wrong-doing.

Did I change any minds? I doubt it.

Punishment as a Deterrent

For punishment to be an effective deterrent, it must be certain, severe, and swift. In many educational programs about hazing, we talk about death, discipline, and policies. A death is not certain, and discipline often lacks swiftness, as organizations can evade punishment as long as people fail to report violations.

On the other hand, many of us fail to recognize that hazing continues because it can meet some basic human needs. I want to be clear: The damage that hazing does outweighs any perceived positives, but until we are ready to normalize those yearnings, the success of our work will be limited.

How, not Why

This is not about why we fight hazing, but rather how we fight hazing.

"Ignore what a man desires and you ignore the very source of his power." -Walter Lippmann

One of the students in the Response Ability Project video eloquently states that he wants new members of his organization to understand his commitment and passion for his organization. He agrees that some hazing is dangerous and pointless, but he sees benefits for other forms of hazing.

These are basic, natural human needs. We want to belong. We want to prove ourselves. We want to show how much our organization means to us. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with any of those.

Unfortunately, those yearnings are too often exploited to the point that countless students are denying their personal values and numerous organizations are betraying their true purpose. Still others risk their emotional, physical, or psychological well being.

“That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.” –Thomas Paine

The Game-Changer

The question that can be a game-changer for the hazing prevention movement is: Can we provide challenging, meaningful, and rigorous experiences, which are positive and supportive of true character development?

This is the foundation of Building Heroes. We believe that hazing is the most dangerous tradition of any organization, not just because of emotional, physical, and psychological risks to those participating, but because hazing directly threatens the purpose and values of an organization. We believe that the purpose of values-based organizations is to challenge, empower, and inspire men and women to strive for their highest values.

We’re here to challenge you to aspire higher, to act on your values, and to be a hero.